Craig Wisner

The Lost Coast

The trip began on Thursday, June 23rd, with a drive to the Bay Area to stay with my old friend Ben.  I met him at the construction site he was working on, about a block south of Haight-Ashbury.  With a few hours to kill until he was off work, I roamed the city.  Having never been there, I was instantly dazed by the proliferation of patchouli and incense, every other shop selling glass and Bob Marley t-shirts, and the seeming endless array of hippies, young and old…Selling something, everyone selling something.  What at one time in my life might have been some sort of Mecca, as it clearly was for many of the dreadlocked, blue-eyed kids roaming the streets, now appeared to me as one giant TV commercial pushing some sort of lifestyle.  Quickly overwhelmed and becoming increasingly misanthropic, I grabbed a coffee and got out of there, heading for Golden Gate Park.

At the park, squalor.  While I’m down with much of the anarchist-come-social dropout mentality, the punks and hippies I saw there seemed to be dwelling in a world of nothing but substance abuse.  Bakunin and Zerzan didn’t seem to be anywhere to be found, only smack and weed and cheap liquor.  I watched a girl that looked all of thirteen years old, squatting and smoking cigarettes with a group of grown men…I had to go.  Luckily I found some solitude at the top of Buena Vista Park, enjoying a great view of the bridge and the bay.

After Ben was off work, I finally made it to Sausalito, fully ready to get out of the bigger city.  A quiet night of beer and dinner overlooking the harbor ensued, my faith in humanity was somewhat restored, and I was ready to head off for the coast come morning.

For some reason I was confused about this trip from the beginning, never feeling like I fully understood where I was going or what I was doing.  Not that the logistics ended up being that hard, but psychologically something just wasn’t clicking during the planning.  I’d look at the maps one day, certain of my plans, only to second guess everything the next.  I originally intended to yo-yo the whole coast, starting at Usal Camp at the southern end of the Sinkyone Wilderness, hiking all the way to the northern terminus of the King’s Range, Mattole Beach, and hiking back.  The plan was to do this in 5 nights. I soon discovered that starting at Usal would be a bad idea, as the drive in is difficult and it’s not a recommended place to leave a car unattended for a week.

So now the plan was to start in the middle, at the Hidden Valley trailhead outside of Shelter Cove, hike about 20-25 miles south to Usal over 1.5 days, then back to the car.  I would resupply food, then head north and back. I was a little bummed that by starting in the middle the trip wouldn’t feel as continuous, but on a positive note, I wouldn’t have to carry all my food at once.

My feet finally hit the trail, heading south from Hidden Valley on the Lost Coast trail.  It was an hour of hiking before I reached my first views of the ocean, surrounded by redwoods and dense forest while climbing in and out of canyons.  As the day progressed, I got closer to he ocean.  It eventually came into full view during most of the hike, though I was still on trails considerably high on the cliffs above it.  A land where giant forests and cliffs meet the ocean, impressive indeed.  The weather was unusually hot and clear for the north coast, easily pushing the high 80s while inland.  About fourteen miles of hiking brought me to Bear Harbor, where I would be staying for the night.  It became apparent throughout the days hiking that my mileage goals weren’t going to happen; my energy was a bit low and I realized I had underestimated the mileage combined with logistics of finding suitable camping locations.  A 100 mile yo-yo certainly wasn’t going to happen in 5 nights, which was all the food I had, unless I seriously picked up the pace- which was looking quite dubious.  So I was content with the plan that came of its own; lazily meandering through canyons and bluffs, stalking the elk herds (which I never got into photo-range of without being blocked by vegetation),   staying at Bear Harbor for the night, and heading back north the next day.  The rest of the southern half of the Sinkyone would have to wait.

South into Sinkyone

First ocean view

Getting closer

Whale Gulch

Back into the Jurassic. Unseen elk crashing through ferns.

Looking back; the trail came down from the peak.

The beach at Bear Harbor

Looking back from Bear Harbor beach. I camped by the trees.

Thoreau and a flask of Glenfiddich on a cliff. Hard to beat.

Day one is done...

One of m favorite sunsets was soon to follow, enjoyed from cliffs and a small beach I had entirely to myself.  Surf fishing produced nothing but eel grass and kelp this evening, so I was content with only my Popeye Ramen (1).  I could eat this for days…and have.

I ended up sharing a fire and dinner with two other hikers from Chico, depleting half of my whiskey on the first night over stories of their ride of the CDT (they did the CDT via MTB together), philosophical musings of the campfire variety, and general nonsense as the liquor depleted.

I took my time in the morning, which is rare when I’m solo, but knowing that I’d never make my original mileage freed me to just slow down.  After breakfast (2) and a few hours on the beach, camp was broken and I began the return journey back to the car and the King’s Range section of the coast.

Camp in the morning at Bear Harbor

Bear Harbor beach, day two.

Morning, day two.

After getting lsemi-lost while driving and stopping in Shelter Cove, I finally reached the beginning of the northern section at the Black Sand Beach trailhead.  With 3 nights/4 days of food, I figured I’d just go as far as I could and turn around, no expectations.  Upon my first steps on the beach, I realized it wouldn’t be far at all…Sinking ankle deep in sand or pebbles with every step, I was reduced to more of a stagger than a hike.  Having already had some mileage on my legs, I knew the rest of this day would be short.  I was mentally unprepared for the heat as well, having hit weather that was completely uncharacteristic- a slack tide, zero wind, and clear skies with full sun.  It was easily approaching 90 degrees and more akin to hiking in a very dry desert, only with ocean on the left, cliffs to the right,  and endless glaring sand ahead.  This is where my energy took an even greater turn for the worse; I was really feeling lethargic.  I was loving the scenery, but just had no gas, my legs were slowly becoming jelly.  Something was just physically and psychologically off on this trip, my motivation was slipping.  I made it to Glitchell Creek, about 4 miles from the trailhead, and decided to call it quits for the day.  It was now certain that the 20+ mile days I’m accustomed to while solo were not going to happen on this trip.  It was about 4PM, high tide was approaching and the next 3-4 mile section would be impassible.  I set up camp and took a hike up the creek to get out of the sun and heat, swim, and eat.  Mood lifted, I fell asleep curled like an animal on a beach by the stream for about an hour and then wandered back out in search of firewood.

Black Sand Beach, beginning of the northern section. King's Range.

Home, night two.

The night was passed in true castaway fashion, shirtless and laying beside a fire in the sand, rolling over to stare at the stars periodically.  I was a King, reclined on one elbow, lazily picking through all of my food.   Time slowed, my mind was still; this is exactly what I came for.  Other fires along the beach began to go out, but I stayed up well into morning hours before climbing into the tent (3).  Truly a spectacular night.  Come morning, a breezy sunrise, and more low energy, I knew I was done.  I had a few reservations about going home so early with so much food left, but something was just telling me to go home.  Not in a hurried, anxious way, but I found I was content, ready to see my family.   There were no long miles or epic struggles, just slow time, sun, saltwater…After 2 nights and 3 days of walking,  I decided the rest of the Lost Coast would wait.   In the end, I suppose this is an essential part of the beauty of backpacking and outdoor travel; sometimes you don’t know what to expect or where you’re going, others the plan goes off flawlessly.   Sometimes you come up short, other times all expectations are exceeded.  Sometimes it’s all of it in a single trip.  Hail the unexpected, relish going into the unknown.

Morning, day three.


(1) Popeye Ramen: one of my favorites.  1-2 packages of “oriental” flavor ramen, using only 1/4th of the seasoning.  To this I add ~1 tablespoon of garlic-chili paste (the kind with the green lid), a ton of spinach (fresh or dehydrated, depending on trip length), shitake mushrooms, topped with green onion.

(2) One of my favorite breakfasts, learned from my buddy Michael Skwarzcek: Two Morningstar Farms veggie sausage patties, crumbled, added to a package of instant potatoes.  Top with green onion.  The sausage patties last about 4 day without refrigeration.

(3) My tent: 2011 MSR Hubba, 3lbs total.  I loved this shelter, though I got no real weather.  I used the mesh inner on the first night due to a plethora of tick and Lyme Disease warnings in the Sinkyone.  The second night I used the full fly due to beach moisture and wind.  Freestanding is awesome, especially for camping on sand; no worries about elaborate deadman staking systems, just set it up and go.  Despite the inner being narrow, this shelter feels super roomy to me (I’m 6’2″, 205 lbs.), even moreso than my old Contrail.  While the Contrail is wider, I could only sit up in the front of it and rubbing the walls meant getting wet with condensation.  No such problems in the MSR.  The vestibule is a great size as well.  It has a great, small footprint and the color is very soothing/unoffensive.  I’ll gladly carry this in the future, I think it’s well worth the extra pound or two.


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